A Joiner’s Mallet Under the Christmas Tree


This summer several events created an opportunity for my next woodworking project, a traditional joiner’s mallet.  Christopher Schwarz (Lost Art Press) published plans on his blog for a mallet that Roy Underhill made for him.  Also my brother-in-law gave me some ideal wood for a mallet head.  It was a reclaimed knee brace taken from a timber frame barn in southern Indiana.  This beautiful piece of white oak was to be turned into a pair of mallets, putting this old-growth material to a continued although alternative purpose.

A traditional joiner’s mallet consists of two pieces, a head and a handle that fits into the head through a tapered mortise.   I started by resawing the white oak beam into the dimensions for the mallet heads. Resawing white oak by hand is not exactly quick, but I always find this type of work therapeutic.  I then ripped and resawed two lengths of straight grain red oak for the handles.  Before proceeding, I reviewed the episode of the Woodwright’s Shop, “Big Ash Mallet“, where Roy details the background and methods for making a joiner’s mallet.

With the two handle blanks dimensioned and the white oak piece for the two mallet heads ready, I began laying out the handle shape and the matching tapered mortise in each mallet head.  Following Roy’s lead, I bored out the center of the mortise with a 1” auger and brace then working to chop the tapered mortise in each head.  Given the hardness of this reclaimed white oak, several chisel sharpenings were required.  The handles were shaped with a coping saw, block plane, and spokeshave to match the design and the tapered mortise in the heads.  The mallets were finished by tuning the joints and chamfering the sides of the head and handle.  Then a generous coat of Danish oil was applied.  One mallet ended up in my tool chest.  The second was given to my brother-in-law for Christmas and is already being put to use building timber frames at The Beamery.



Yellow-Poplar Shaker Side Table

After building the five-board bench, I wanted to explore some more furniture. I settled on a Shaker side table and I found some good plans by Christian Becksvoort (a renowned Shaker furniture builder) in Fine Woodworking (#210). I planned to build the tapered leg version, but without a drawer.

It started with a trip to a local sawmill in August. It was to be my first furniture project where I started with rough sawn lumber. I wanted to buy some easily workable wood that was not costly. I bought 4/4 yellow-poplar for the top and aprons along with 8/4 yellow-poplar for the legs. I can home from the mill and set forth to rough dimension the pieces.

Ripping Table Legs
Ripping 8/4 material for leg stock

Given that my free time (and woodworking time is limited), it took me most of the fall to surface and final dimension the pieces needed for the table. The 8/4 material for the legs had difficult grain, unfortunately, and it created some considerable effort to get four legs dimensioned to 1 3/8” square. It did however provide opportunity for me to work on my plane iron sharpening skills.

For the top, I flattened one face and shot an edge on the two boards. Making sure the edges fit well together and were very slightly hollow along the length (i,e., a slight “sprung joint”), I glued up the board for the top. Once the Old Brown Glue was dried, I used my marking gauge to set the board thickness and surface the rough face. I believe that the board I used for the top was also not dried very well (moisture content above 11%) and it cupped and twisted quite a bit after this initial surface planing. It probably did not help that it was flat sawn and had grown rings from near the pith in it (further complicating the drying and stability). As all my pieces have been learning endeavours, this top allowed me much practice with the use of winding sticks and appropriate planing techniques to deal with twist.

Side Bar on Straight Edges and Winding Sticks: Based upon recommendations on the web referencing Chris Schwarz and Bill Anderson, I bought a length of aluminium angle as a long straight edge for the dimensioning of the top and legs. I first bought a piece of angle that was 1/16” thick and 1 ¼” wide on each side. I found this material to be too flexible to serve as a consistent straight edge. In other words, different hand pressure would make it flex across the length of a board making it look straight/flat when it was likely not. So I bought a second aluminium angle that was 1/8” thick by 1”. This seemed to be more functional as a straight edge. I turned the 1/16” angle into winding sticks by cutting the 4′ length in half and adding blue painters tape on the top ends of one half to serve as a color contrast useful in sighting boards when they have “winding”. The thinner aluminium angle seemed to be okay for this purpose.

I followed the well-written detail in Robert Wearing’s The Essential Woodworker as a reference for laying-out and cutting the joints along with assembly of the table. It is a great reference and with the text and photos it was a straight forward process to complete the joinery. Leg mortises and mortises for the shrinkage buttons that attach the top were chopped with a 5/16” chisel. The haunch slots in the legs were completed by defining the vertical shoulder with a dovetail saw and paring the waste with a chisel. Legs were tapered by first removing the bulk of the waste with a rip saw and then finishing with my jack and jointer planes. The only word of caution with this approach is tear-out on the backside of the legs associated with the ripping. It would probably be better practice to use only a plane or to offset further from the taper line when sawing the rough taper. Once all the pieces were finished I did a round of final smoothing with my Stanley #4.

Legs were attached using drawboring. I relied on several sources for the drawboring methods including Peter Follansbee’s blog as well as the blog named A Riving Home. Holes on the two face sides of the legs were at least an 1” from the mortise end walls and were carefully aligned so pegs from opposite faces would not intersect. I used a 1/16” offset toward the shoulder on the tenon for the drawbore hole. Pegs were made by splitting straight grained red oak and shaped with a large chisel to taper over then entire length of the peg.  The large end of the pegs were shaped to be slightly larger than 1/4″. Given the width of the legs (1 3/8”) and thickness of the aprons (7/8”) I had to remove some material on the inside of the aprons so the pegs could pass through the drawbore holes. This was done with a gouge. I did not use drawbore pins but did clamp the joint during assembly. After trepidation about splitting the piece with the drawboring, all pegs were driven, the joints were tight, and no splitting occurred. A relief, it was assembled!

Assembled table base highlighting joinery

Next I sawed off the horns from the legs, levelled the legs, and attached the top using the shrinkage buttons and #8 brass screws. The bevel on the bottom of the top was planed before assembly and was 1” wide and 1/8” tall. I debated about milk paint as a finish, but I wanted to preserve the contrast between the poplar and oak pegs so I opted for two coats of Danish oil sanded between coats with a brown paper bag. The piece will cure for a time and then I will finish it with paste wax.

Yellow-poplar Shaker side table

An Auger Bit Roll Tests My Sewing Skills

In my travels to a number of antique stores in search of usable tools, I have nearly gathered a complete set of Irwin auger bits. They are a bit cumbersome to store without a tool roll. While some of the auger bit rolls I have seen for sale are quite remarkable in terms of craftsmanship (i.e., Texas Heritage Woodworks), I thought it would be a good project to sew my own. We have a heavy duty Singer machine and I bought some brown duck cloth and red denim thread; I thought it would be an easy evening project. It turned out to be quite a challenge of my sewing machine skills and patience. Two rolls of thread later and plenty of practice with the seam ripper I was able to finish the roll.

Auger Bit Roll

I laid out the auger bit pockets with my framing square and marked the seam lines with a disappearing fabric pen. The piece is usable and I think will be quite durable. I made the bit pockets 1” wide for the small bits, 2” for the wider ones, and 3” for the 16 and 20 bits. I would recommend sticking with 2” wide pockets for bits sizes between 7 and 20 (note: these are sizes in 16ths of an inch, e.g., size 8 is 1/2” diameter). I plan a future sewing project to make a roll to hold my assorted Stanley 45 cutters.

Panel Gauge after Hayward

The next large project I am working on is a yellow-poplar side table (currently dimensioning the rough sawn lumber I picked-up at a local saw mill).  But before I could complete that project, I wanted to build a panel gauge.  This gauge is used to mark out wide boards to a desired width prior to ripping or planing.  Several are available by current tool makers (Lie-Nielsen Toolworks,  Hamilton Woodworks), but they are at least $85.  In reviewing the historic books available at the Toolemera “museum”, I found a book by Charles Hayward titled How To Make Woodwork Tools (1945).  In this reference, he provides the plans included below for a wooden panel gauge with a wedge style locking mechanism (many have a wooden or metal screw locking the fence to the beam).

Hayward Panel Gauge

For my version, I used a scrap piece of cherry for the fence and wedge.  The beam was made from a scrap piece of red oak which I ripped from the board to approximate a quarter-sawn straight grain pattern to hopefully increase the stability of the piece.  My first step was to mark and chop the mortise in the fence for the beam and the wedge.  Note that the upper part of the mortise is tapered to match the slope of the wedge.  I then marked and cut the rabbet on the fence bottom using a cutting gauge and chisel.  The fence was finished by cutting the miters at the top and chamfering the edges.  I drilled a 9/32 hole for the pencil and the pencil was secured to the beam using a brass screw insert (8-32) with machine screw inserted perpendicular to the pencil hole.  Total material costs were about $5.  The tool works pretty well, but takes a little adjustment to get it all square as you tap the wedge to secure the beam.  Checked for squareness with a framing square and it is ready to mark some lines for one of my favourite tasks, ripping with a handsaw.

Panel Gauge after Hayward

Dull Saw to Sharp Saw – Building a Saw Vise

One of my skills I wanted to develop this year was sharpening handsaws.  Since the availability of new, well-made handsaws is limited, the ones I have acquired are used (via antique stores, ebay, etsy, and Second Chance Saw Works) and date to before 1950.  Currently, I have some of the common Disston models D-23, No. 7, and D-8 with 26″ saw plates and a variety of tooth patterns.  As a reference, Matt Cianci’s post on WKFineTools gives a great overview on saws required for hand woodwork.

Before sharpening saws, one must have a proper saw filing vise.  Gramercy Tools makes a great vise; one can also use a vintage vise or a shop made one.  The plans for a wooden saw vise in Popular Woodworking (June 2010 issue #183 p. 52-53) seemed like a good route for me.  I made mine of 3/4″ thick yellow-poplar.  It was joined with SPAX no. 8 wood screws (not to be confused with Spanx woman’s ‘shapewear’) .

Saw sharpening vise

Now that my saw vise is done, I will begin the more difficult part, filing several of my rip and cross-cut saws.  Here I am ripping a pine board with a Lakeside (Warranted Superior medallion) 5 1/2 ppi saw.  The first that I have filed.

Ripping on saw bench

A Joinery Tool Chest

The first piece constructed using my new workbench was a portable tool chest. I store my tools in the house, while I do all of my woodworking in my shed and outdoors. Therefore this chest would help me organize and transport my growing body of joinery tools including two western style back saws (14” hybrid filed sash saw and 9” dovetail saw). That way I could grab this box when I head out to the shed and I would have most of the tools I need to layout pieces and cut joinery. The chest measures 22” W x 17” D x 9 ½ H (including battens) and holds most of my primary tools except my rip and cross cut handsaws, Stanley no. 7 jointer plane, and hand drills (bit brace and ‘eggbeater’).


The carcass of the chest was built using 1×8 pine from the home center and rabbet and cut nail joints. The chest bottom was tongue and groove yellow-poplar. I used poplar flooring boards with precut tongue and groove as they are fairly inexpensive and because I do not own a plow plane. The chest lid was made using two pieces of pine held together with yellow-poplar battens and clinched cut nails.

Christopher Schwarz’s book The Anarchist‘s Tool Chest provides a very good overview regarding the design of a tool chests and stresses good planning on how the space is arranged and tools stored. To lay out the interior for this piece I sketched varying dimensions and how items like my backsaws, tool roll, Stanley no. 4 smoothing plane, and try squares would fit. I also needed to consider how wide the chest would be based upon the longest tool I wanted to store in it and a comfortable width for me to carry it quite regularly from the house to the shed. I settle on 22” wide. While I cannot store my Stanley no. 7 in it, it fits through our door ways and I can handle it pretty easily with my “wingspan”.


About a third of the chest interior is made-up by the backsaw till. This till is made from yellow-poplar and has 1/8” grooves cut vertically to hold the backsaws. The grooves are deep enough so the saw is supported by its back and not the toothline touching the bottom. I ripped these grooves by holding the pieces in the Moxon twin screw vise I built. Since 1/8” is wider than the kerf of any saw I owned, I had to rip these using a saw cut on each side of the groove and removing the waste with a coping saw. After my first attempt to saw these grooves was a failure, my second approach was to saw each side of the groove incrementally (i.e., saw a bit on one side then saw the equivalent depth on the other) until the depth had been reached. In addition to the saw till, I mortised a piece of walnut to hold my small try square and made a support on the side of the chest interior to hold my 9” try square. The the hinges and handles are basic home center stuff. The exterior of the chest was finished with two coats of danish oil. The chest has served well so far and I am pleased with its design.

Low (or Floor) Sawhorses: A Necessity for Japanese Saws

After reading Toshio Odate’s book, Japanese Woodworking Tools: Their Tradition, Spirit and Use, I was inspired to make a toolbox for my second project.  Descriptions in Odate’s book indicated that low (or floor) sawhorses were commonly used with Japanese saws.  Japanese saws work on the pull stroke and sawyers typically work in a bent over position while using these saws.  I built a pair of these low sawhorses to help facilitate the cross-cutting and ripping I would need to do with my ryoba during the toolbox build.

Japanese Low Horse

These low sawhorses were made from a Douglas-fir 2×4.  The 9 inch wide “legs” were held to the 20 inch long beams using 5/8″ oak dowels. If I were to build these again, I may have used a 2×6 for the beams as to give me a little more height above the floor when sawing.